Simplification disaster: The Case of Shafer v Civilization

How does it happen that a shining success fades into failure, that a popular series falls out of favor, that a great product line drops off into obscurity? Those are the questions I’ve pondered for the past few years after my favorite video game series, Sid Meier’s Civilization, went completely off the rails at version five. Ultimately, I think it comes down to losing touch with customers.

Although I’ve never been a big video game player, I’ve somehow been a fan of the Civilization series since it first appeared back in about 1991. Game designer Sid Meier knew how to appeal to my pattern-seeking tendencies and lure me in with his strategically-oriented creations. “Just one more turn, just one more turn,” became a mantra which kept you up deep into the night. Civ begat Civ II which led to Civ III and, by 2005, the pinnacle of the form in Civ IV.

Then came Civ V,  a radical departure from all that. Many, many beloved features were watered down, simplified beyond recognition and even tossed aside. Entirely new concepts and metaphors were added, some of which didn’t fit with the rest of the game. Much of the refresh was said to get rid of the boring, micro-managing bits of the game. But in the end, it left a game with too few choices, too few options and too weak a connection to all that came before. My overall opinion of Civ V? YUCK!

The other day, the lead designer of Civ V, Jon Shafer, posted a long retrospective on the game’s development process. One of Shafer’s worst sins appears to have been that he designed the game for the style he liked to play, or perhaps thought was the best way to play, when in fact Civ’s great strength had always been the multiplicity of strategy and tactics that could lead to a fun gaming session.

Take Shafer’s decision to eliminate players’ ability to allocate resources between scientific research, cultural expansion and commercial development. He thought it was “boring busywork” but, of course, it was also one of the most important ways to change tactics, to prepare your empire for war or try to leap ahead in science.

I’ve always found fiddling with sliders in strategy games to be boring busywork, and in that sense I don’t miss them. But the sliders also had a hidden value that I didn’t realize until later – they gave players the ability to shift directions at any time. I’ve written at length about the importance of adaptation in strategy games. Unfortunately, once the sliders were gone players were basically permanently locked into their past economic choices. There was no way to sacrifice research in order to upgrade your army, for example. Rewarding long-term planning is certainly a worthy endeavor, but you still need to provide tools to allow players to change course when necessary.

Following another of his personal preferences, a lot of Shafer’s changes made it all but impossible to build a vast, overarching empire – surely one of the most popular ways to play. Now, he seems to realize that was a mistake, too:

It was virtually impossible to build the large, sprawling empires which had always been a feature in the series and served as the entire point playing for many people. I still believe that there are ways to make smaller empires viable, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of those who enjoy expanding. Penalties should be challenges to overcome, not an insurmountable wall to be frustrated by.

In the post-Steve Jobs era, it’s quite popular to affirm the brilliant visionary view of the world – Shafer caught the attention of Civ’s makers initially with his brilliant game mods for earlier editions. Jobs famously claimed that Apple did no customer research and made products he and his team wanted to use. But I think that ethos takes you only so far. Sometimes it’s better to listen.